Every twenty-five years or so, we get a remake of Black Beauty. And, why not? It remains a children’s classic ever since the publishing of the novel in 1877. Author Anna Sewell didn’t invent anthropomorphism, but used it with great effectiveness. How better to explain the hardships and suffering a horse might endure? More importantly, how better to explain the bond between man and mare? Or, as Robert Smith Surtees wrote, “there is no secret so close as between a rider and his horse.”
Billed as a re-imagining of Black Beauty, the 2020 version takes you from the wild mustangs of Utah to a rescue ranch in New York. As you might expect, the cinematography in the mountains and along the ocean is stunning. What you might not expect is that most of the filming occurred in Cape Town, South Africa. Five different horses play Black Beauty. Yet, the theme of the original remains intact. “Maybe humans and horses are not so different after all,” muses Black Beauty. Filmed for the family, certain to bring a tear to the eye, I give the movie 4.0 Gavels. Scrooge-like critics are at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes and the normally testosterone-heavy IMDb score sits at 6.1/10.
Torn from her family, Black Beauty arrives at the Birtwick rescue facility in New York to be “broken” and sold. Trainer John Manly is not having much luck with the horse. His niece arrives, her parents recently killed in a car crash. Jo Green, never around horses, begins to bond with the horse “with a mean streak,” not so with her uncle. Sorrowfully, Manly notes “now, I have two girls who want nothing to do with me.” Instinctively, Jo recognizes that she is “partnering” with Black Beauty, that his spirit can be tested, but never broken. The tests are about to begin.
Seen in the title role of Clara in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Mackenzie Foy stays under contract with Disney as Jo Green. Kate Winslet (Titanic) voices the talkative, insightful Black Beauty. If you’ve never seen the Jack Taylor series, you might overlook the talents of Iain Glen. Check those out. In the meantime, his gentle hand as trainer John Manly is a masterpiece.
If you liked Anne with an E, this is in the same wheelhouse. It’s not as good, but, like Anne, to be savored, taken slowly. Jo and John are horse whisperers, both with a gift for understanding horses. Sweet, some would say too saccharine. I say thank you, Disney, for continuing to make family films.
As a nod to opposing opinions, Film Week concludes “it’s like A Dog’s Purpose, but with a horse. Pretty, but very cloying.” Then again, IndieWire answers with “as the wild horse and the heart-broken girl slowly bond, Black Beauty transforms into a heart-warming tale of the power of love.”
After all the murders, beatings, and drugs we see on the screen, Black Beauty is a refreshing change of pace. This one is hot chocolate on the sofa all the way.